Why you should read Atlas of the Heart

One of my programs is called “Books & Belonging.”  It’s a book group for like-hearted leaders and game changers–people who want to make a positive impact on the world and who know that change starts with our own personal growth.  Here is a quick description of one of the group’s book selections and why it is worth a read:

Book: Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown

Book Summary:  Brene Brown uses her research on emotions to provide a “map” of our common human experience.  With over 80 emotions and experiences defined, Atlas of the Heart helps readers explore the roots of their emotions and understand how having the language to explore these depths allows us to connect with others in meaningful ways.

Why It’s Recommended Reading:  Success as a leader or a game-changer lies in our ability to connect with others.  True connection stems from shared human experiences and emotions.  Yet, many leaders do not delve deep into their own emotions for a variety of reasons like the fear of being seen as weak, feeling pressed to move on to the next task, or a belief that leaders must be stoic.  Atlas of the Heart is a great tool to help people explore the nuances of different emotions so that they can better connect to themselves and others.

A Few Takeaways from the Book:

  • We know the importance of developing trust as leaders, but we often neglect the importance of developing our own self-trust.  And, self-trust is easily destroyed when we make mistakes or feel that we’ve failed. How might others sense your lack of self-trust?
  • Anger often masks other feelings such as shame, guilt, worry, and hurt.  When we are approached by others expressing anger, or when we feel anger ourselves, we should stop and consider what other feelings may be hiding beneath the surface. What consequences could you have avoided by taking a more compassionate approach to anger?
  • There is a Buddhist concept of near enemies and far enemies of connection.  Far enemies are the opposite of connecting with people.  For example, the far enemy of compassion would be cruelty or distancing yourself from someone.  Near enemies seem similar to connection on the surface, but actually undermine true connection.  The near enemy of compassion is showing pity or comparing your own suffering to someone suffering in the moment.  Which of your relations have suffered by failing to connect the way you intended?

If you value the role of your relationships in living your purpose, ask yourself what’s possible if you explore your emotions more deeply.

Finding an Alternative to Quiet Quitting

Back when I was a teacher, the teachers’ union organized a movement called “Work to Rule” to demonstrate our collective stance that teachers deserved better pay.  Every time negotiations were not going the way our union wanted, they asked teachers to do only what our contract stated and only during our required work hours.  Teachers would gather outside their schools in the morning, walk in together at the official start of the day, and leave together at the official end of the day without taking work home.  Essentially, it was a united and more explicit form of “quiet quitting,” a hot topic in discussions around leadership and the workforce these days.  

If you’re not familiar with the phrase, quiet quitting is essentially an act of disengagement in the workplace.  Rather than subscribing to the hustle culture–working beyond your duty hours, overextending yourself to meet unrealistic expectations, etc.–people are setting aside the idea of going above and beyond.  In some scenarios, people are doing the bare minimum required of their roles; nothing beyond what is explicitly stated as their responsibility or what can be completed during their work hours.  In other scenarios, people are showing up to work physically while checking out mentally and emotionally.

The thing is, this movement isn’t just about success at work.  Quiet quitting is a symptom of a complex issue.  Factor out the extremes–people who are unmotivated, apathetic, and only work for a paycheck, and those who  define success in life as success at work.  What you’re left with is a lot of people who care about making a contribution, who want to do good work, AND who also define themselves by who they are and what they do outside of the workplace.  You’re left with people who feel forced to choose between overexertion and valuing themselves.

No matter how we define success for ourselves, most of us want to feel engaged in and excited by the work that pays our bills.  At the very least, we want to feel valued as an employee and as a person.  Before succumbing to the symptom of quiet quitting, getting clear about your options and what’s at the heart of your frustrations will lead you to greater fulfillment in the long run.  

Setting Standards for Self-Care

I remember being the lone person standing at a meeting for new assistant principals, indicating that I was the only person who was answering yes to a question that was asked.  It felt awkward and uncomfortable as I glanced around the room and saw the looks on my colleagues’ faces.  Of course, there were a few people who just didn’t seem to care.  A few looked pleased, some looked amused, and there were quite a few that looked downright spiteful.

The facilitator was reading through a list of tasks and we were supposed to stand if we were doing them regularly.  The tasks were things like staying late at work several times a week, skipping lunch, mediating disputes between students, and handling conflicts between parents and teachers.  Most of us were continually standing up for each task, then sitting back down waiting for the next item to be read aloud.  But when the facilitator asked if we were exercising at least twice a week, I was the only person that stood.  I muttered something about not having kids, half excuse/half apology that I thought should make it more acceptable for me to have this luxury, before trying to disappear into my chair.  

The point the facilitator was trying to make was that our jobs were difficult and that we needed to take care of ourselves.  But there was an unspoken message of our culture that was understood by everyone.  Simply asking the last question about exercising indicated an expectation that few people would stand up.  It indicated that the social norm for school administrators was to run themselves ragged every day.  My guilt for being the lone person standing indicated that I had somehow broken that norm, as did the expressions on people’s faces.

Many organizations have been preaching the importance of self-care for years, but their actions and expectations demonstrated that they are only paying lip service to a trendy topic.  When the pandemic hit, the shared struggles of adjusting to a virtual environment, caring for family members, and living with uncertainty and fear turned self-care from a trend to a dire need.  Organizations addressed the need, some more successfully than others.  Then, as we’ve returned to a more “normal” state, many have also returned to making statements of self-care rather than truly demonstrating support for self-care.

Self-care is something I’ve always claimed as a priority for myself and for others, but looking back on my time as a school leader I know I was guilty of perpetuating an unhealthy culture.  As leaders, our actions and words always have intended and unintended consequences.  If you truly care about the wellbeing of your team, consider what you may be doing that goes against a message of self-care.

  • Do you send emails after work hours or on the weekend?  I used to tell my team not to respond to emails I sent after hours, but it didn’t matter.  Many still felt compelled to respond or at least to read the message.  I was setting the example that it’s ok for work to consume us at all hours, and they were following my example.
  • Do you work while on vacation?  My team would encourage me to turn everything off before I’d go away.  My compromise was that I would only check emails for an hour each morning.  My intention was to make sure they didn’t feel abandoned (and also to keep from having an overwhelming number of emails when I returned to work).  Instead, I sent the message that leaders don’t really need a break.  I may have even sent the message to some that I didn’t trust them to manage without me.  
  • Do you publicly praise people who work beyond their duty hours, skip meals, or sacrifice other aspects of their self-care for the company?  Don’t get me wrong, we should acknowledge and appreciate people who care enough to go the extra mile.  Unfortunately, making a big deal can make those who aren’t going to the same extremes feel underappreciated and blurs the lines for much needed boundaries.
  • Do you preach self-care to employees rather than giving them the time, space, and flexibility to do what’s best for them?  Mandatory professional development on ways to practice self-care is almost insulting.  People don’t need to be told what to do.  They need to be supported in doing what they need.

One of the worst things leaders can do for a culture is to uphold the stereotype of the indestructible leader.  We can be strong, and still need time to rejuvenate, team members that we can lean on, and space to feel what we feel.  Now more than ever, people need leaders who set new standards in support of self-care.  What will you do starting today?

Roadblocks to Possibilities

The August selection for Books & Belonging (a program for creating community between people developing their leadership skills) is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant.  I’m a fan of his podcasts.  I’m also a firm believer that people (especially leaders) should never fool themselves into thinking they know everything, and should be lifelong learners.  Grant does a phenomenal job of explaining the pitfalls of our own thinking, even those of us who consider ourselves to be open-minded and eager to learn.  

One of the ideas he explores is the tendency for humans to think in polarizing ways.  I’ve heard this explained before as our brains being lazy, looking for the easiest way to categorize information and leading us to think in binary terms–right/wrong, positive/negative, good/bad.  As I read how Grant connected this idea to creating communities in which rethinking is part of the culture, I started to think about workplace structures and norms that foster binary thinking and an us-versus-them mentality within organizations.

The first thing that jumped to my mind was evaluation systems.  As a former school administrator, I’ve conducted numerous teacher evaluations.  There was a rubric designed to give teachers and instructional leaders a clear, standardized way of talking about the qualities of effective instruction.  It makes sense–without clearly articulating expectations for instruction, how could we expect all of our teachers to deliver the type of instruction that we know leads to student achievement?  The problem was that by being tied to employee ratings, the rubric drew more of a divide between teachers and administrators, rather than creating a collaborative culture.  It didn’t matter if my overall impression of a teacher’s instruction was positive, or that I attempted to use the process as a way to highlight strengths and narrow in on one or two areas for growth that would make them even stronger.  And, it didn’t matter if there were opportunities for more feedback, coaching, or professional development.  For most teachers, what mattered was how many checkboxes they received in each of the categories from ineffective to highly effective.  What mattered was that they were being judged.

So, how are school districts or other organizations supposed to have clear, objective expectations for success while also creating learning communities?  The answer is, unfortunately, “it’s complicated.”  Yes, there should be clear definitions for effective instruction.  Yes, ratings should be based on performance and not left to the subjectivity of the evaluator.  AND, as Adam Grant suggests, we need to constantly take into consideration the complexities of any given situation if we want to engage with others in learning and improving.  Teachers recognize the different challenges each of their students face, whether they have a learning disability, come from unstable homes, have access to plenty of resources, or are high-performing.  No two students are exactly the same, and no two teachers for that matter.

When thinking about how to create a learning community within your own organization or team, consider this–What are the existing structures or norms that limit our thinking?  Is it the hierarchy, company policies, or the widely known opinions of those at the top?  Then ask yourself “How might I disrupt that structure in a way that can open us up to more possibilities?  You may find that all it takes is a subtle shift in your own thinking.

Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries have been a popular topic of conversation lately.  So many people have mentioned being overwhelmed and not having their own needs met.  When I ask what boundaries they need, most struggle with an answer.  They recognize the importance of boundaries, yet in a world where almost everything can be accessed with the click of a button it seems like we have trouble not responding when that click points in our direction.

I love how Jen Sincero describes boundaries in her book Badass Habits.  She explains that “having healthy boundaries means owning your actions, emotions, and needs as well as not owning the actions, emotions, and needs of others.”  Think about how many times you’ve heard people say “I need ____, but someone is always asking for more from me” or “I can’t ____ because then so-and-so will feel ____.”  How many times have you said something similar?

I do understand that there are times when boundaries seem impossible, like when you have young children or are caring for someone else who is completely dependent on you.  And I also recognize that in some professions, the expectation is for employees to be on call 24-7 (not that I agree with this practice).  I also believe that if we take some time to think about it there are ways we can begin to create healthy boundaries.  Here are a few questions to get you started:

When do you need space?  Some of us need space to think before making decisions.  Others need space when emotions are running high.  Being in tune with when you need space puts you in a better place to advocate for that need when those moments arise.

How do you use your time to restore your own energy?  Reflecting on this question will reveal not only what things you do that restore you, but also how often you do those things and what is getting in the way if you’re not.  Then you can decide what boundaries will better serve you–blocking off time on your calendar for that workout, getting into bed 15-minutes earlier to read a good book, or turning off your cell phone at dinner and leaving it off for the rest of the night.

Who are the people that drain you?  The reality is that there are people who (no matter how much you may love them) suck the life out of you!  Recognizing that as a reality, rather than chastising yourself for being rude or rationalizing why they are the way they are, gives you the chance to set boundaries for your interactions.  And yes, you may have to articulate those boundaries which can be tricky.  (I feel another blog post coming on…)

What are your own desires that don’t always serve you?  Does this sound counterintuitive to leading a whole, fulfilled life?  Well, the reality is that sometimes we are our own worst enemies.  Many of my recent conversations about boundaries also revolved around taking our strengths and talents too far.  For those of you familiar with CliftonStrengths, my Learner theme offers a prime example.  I love learning so much that I have a stack of unread books, typically read about 5 books at a time, and may not finish a single one!  Setting the boundary that I cannot buy a new book until I’ve finished at least two keeps me from getting overwhelmed by all my reading choices and makes me feel more satisfied because I am getting more out of the books that I finish.

While the word “boundaries” may conjure up the idea of limits, healthy boundaries do just the opposite.  They allow us to make sure our basic needs are met so that we can show up more fully in life.  What boundaries do you need to show up as your full self?

Photo by Ray Bilcliff on Pexels.com

Adjusting the Volume on Leadership Demands

Brene Brown’s work on leadership and vulnerability have had a tremendous impact on many of today’s leaders.  In her work, she defines leadership as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”  I’m grateful for how she intentionally defines leadership because I believe that’s what leadership should look like.

However, that is often not the case.  There are plenty of people in the world who still view leadership as a position of power, regardless of whether or not anyone is actually following the “leader.”  Unfortunately there are also a lot of vocal people in the world who spend their time complaining and spreading negativity, without the knowledge or experience to back them up and with plenty of followers.

Then there are leaders who fit into Brown’s definition.  They may not be in a position that affords them power, yet they are clearly leaders because of how others respond to them.  Some may have authority and positive intentions, but feel so constrained by company demands and expectations that their investment in people suffers.  I believe this is where the critical mass lies–struggling to lead in a way that aligns with their values because they are bombarded by competing voices, unclear priorities, and unreasonable demands.

So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?  First, consider what the people you lead need in order to be successful.  The bottom line is your organization’s success depends on their ability to do the work.  Next, consider whose lead you are following.  Sometimes we need to pause before we can recognize which voices are leading us astray. Then, turn the volume down where needed.  While we may be bound to listen to some people because of the power they have over us or our personal ties with them, we still can make a choice of what we let in and what we don’t.  Easier said than done…and also worth the effort.

Kicking an Old Identity

I practiced martial arts for almost 20 years. At first, it was a great activity for me.  Martial arts aligned with my need to be active, my love for learning, and my appreciation for discipline and structure.  As time went on, things changed.  I plateaued–not that I couldn’t learn more, but my body just never was going to be able to do much more, especially given the limited amount of time I had to practice.  I had plenty of discipline and structure in my life thanks to that thing called “adulting.”  And, I was just in a different place in my life.  When I exercised I wanted to clear my mind, get in a good workout, and be done with it.  My learning needs were being met in other ways, and I preferred to spend my time alone or in smaller settings, rather than getting knocked around the dojang with all the hustle and bustle of flying feet.  Yet for some reason, I just kept going eventually earning a 3rd degree black belt.

I remember the day of that test.  Testing always started with each candidate having to answer questions on required knowledge–history of the art, number of movements in a pattern, explaining proper body alignment, reciting guiding principles.  After months of studying and practice I was prepared for any question that could come my way.  But then our Master asked “Why are you doing this?”

Suddenly, I was struck with panic.  I managed to spit out an answer, but in my head I kept asking myself the question over and over!  “Why AM I doing this?”  It suddenly dawned on me that I no longer had the desire to practice martial arts and that I was testing because it was just the next step in the order of things.  Now, I had 4 hours of grueling physical exertion in front of me, just to obtain something that really didn’t matter to me!

Over the next few months, I reflected on this realization but still couldn’t muster up the courage to stop.  My identity had somehow become intertwined with martial arts.  People knew me as a black belt, as a stick fighter (look up eskrima if you’re curious), as a cardio kickboxing instructor.  It wasn’t what I did; it was somehow who I was. If I quit now, who would I be?

What people know of us or believe us to be can shape our identity in ways that have no bearing on who we are internally.  It’s part of normal human behavior that happens without our awareness.  We meet a person, learn about them, and then attach a label according to what we’ve learned, regardless of whether or not that person would label themselves in the same way.   As a result, some people struggle with imposter syndrome–the internal fear of being discovered as a fraud or a phony.  And, some people try to avoid being labeled by not sharing parts of their lives or not engaging with their interests at all.  If you’ve experienced this, you know it’s not an enjoyable way to live your life.

So how do we combat this issue?  Start by taking the time to consider who you are.  What are your values?  What impact do you want to make?  What brings you joy?  Live into those things and let your actions show what really matters to you.  And listen for what really matters to others so you can know them for who they truly are.

I stopped practicing martial arts in December 2019.  I appreciate everything I learned and the relationships I formed during the almost 20 years of practice, but I appreciate even more how liberating it was to let go of an identity that no longer suited me.  What would you like to let go of?

Managing Uncertainty

Recently I’ve worked with a lot of people with strong Achiever talents.  Naturally driven and hard-working, people with this particular CliftonStrengths theme thrive when they have a clear picture of a team’s or organization’s goals.  They can easily see the next milestone and are always striving to reach that milestone so they can move on to the next.  They can even help set the pace for their team through their own energy and by monitoring the team’s progress.  But what happens during times of uncertainty?

Many of the people I’ve coached with high Achiever talents work in the education field, where the pandemic has led to daily, sometimes hourly, changes.  Adjusting to sudden moves back and forth between in-person and virtual learning, changing quarantine guidelines, and being tasked to take on new (and sometimes unrelated) responsibilities, while being short-staffed and under-resourced has taken a toll on the entire system.  For those with high Achiever, these changes have been especially frustrating because they are regularly being asked to take on new assignments and set aside the milestones that keep them motivated.  

Two things have been particularly helpful for people navigating times of uncertainty and change, especially those with high Achiever talents:

  1. Reframe Success–When there is a chance that goals will shift or even change completely, it’s important to be clear on what success looks like from one day to the next rather than setting your sights only on long-term goals.  The beauty of Achiever is that every day feels like starting at zero with opportunities to fill your own bucket with each accomplishment.  Use that by reframing your thinking to what it will mean to be successful each day.  
  2. Celebrate Success–Those with high Achiever can have a habit of running to the next step without recognizing what has been accomplished.  This means when goals keep shifting, they can feel as though their efforts were in vain.  By taking the time to celebrate what you’ve done under your current set of circumstances, you will recognize the significance of small steps and better appreciate your accomplishments. 

While we are hopeful that the pandemic will end soon, we are all also probably familiar with Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ saying, “The only constant in life is change.”  In times of uncertainty, knowing your own strengths and how you can use them to adapt will help bring a sense of stability to your own life and those you lead.

The Both/And Mindset

As someone who truly enjoys ideas, I find exploring the middle ground and all of its ambiguities natural and fun.  Unfortunately, I also find it difficult to share these thoughts with others.  I’ve always attributed this challenge to communication being one of my weaker skills, so it resonated with me when Lewis’ pointed out how language demonstrates our tendency for polarized thinking.  Control or empowerment.  Structure or flexibility.  Stability or change.  When we allow ourselves to lean one way or the other, we limit ourselves and our impact.

Take for instance the polarities of confidence and humility.  If asked to define the two, people are likely to describe them as opposites.  Confidence means attributing your own skills, traits, or contributions to outcomes, while humility means downplaying or even denying credit for your impact or influence.  Leaders are often described as either confident or humble.  Emerging leaders often find themselves asking how they want to be or how they want to be perceived.  Do I want to be seen as confident so that people will trust my leadership more easily?  Or will humility make me more approachable and gain me more approval?

The reality is that this either/or mindset does not accurately describe people, situations, or organizations, nor is it what people really need.  Someone who is overly confident will likely be perceived as arrogant, while overdoing humility may lead people to doubt their authenticity or even their leadership.  Instead, we can be BOTH confident AND show humility.  We can give credit to the contributions of our team, and acknowledge the work we put into making sure teams are functional and fruitful.  We can be honest about our shortcomings and worries, while assuring others that we will guide them through whatever obstacles lie ahead.

While we may not have the language to describe an integration of polarities, we can still break the patterns of binary thinking.  Start by noticing when your thoughts are framed with “either/or.”  Either I need to face reality or I need to have hope.  Either I am an expert or I am a lifelong learner.  I will lead with either candor or diplomacy.  Then, consider what it would be like to be both things at the same time.  How would this way of being fit in with who you are at your core?  How might others connect with you if they saw your more complex identity?  And what possibilities open up for you as a leader and for your team?  We can be both awesome and human if we stop boxing ourselves in.

My Bossy Inner Child

I’m a homebody, content to stay home every weekend in my sweats watching tv or reading.  When it comes to hanging out with others, even people I really enjoy being around, a simple dinner can still give me a bit of anxiety.  I am just more of an introvert and need a lot of time alone to recharge.  Still, there are a few social activities that get me excited.  Show me an event that will let me be creative, challenge myself, and work with a team and I’m in!  Game nights, mud runs, axe throwing…essentially anything that is playtime for adults is my idea of a good time.

One of my favorite things to do with friends are escape rooms.  I love being immersed in a creative, interactive experience, the challenge of solving clues, and the teamwork that escape rooms require to win.

The first time I did an escape room it was with my sister, brother-in-law, husband, and two of my closest friends.  We had never done an escape room and had no idea what to expect.  While we waited for our turn, I remember the adrenaline that was already starting to build up in me.  I was determined for us to “win” this challenge. Then I looked around the room at our group, all part of my small inner circle and thought, “Oh crap.  This could be a TERRIBLE idea!”

You see, one other thing you should know about me is that I can be a little bossy.  My family would laugh at that statement, saying that I’ve been bossy since birth.  I believe I’ve learned to temper that characteristic, self-managing so that I can lead rather than dictate.  However, I’ve also found that when people are with their closest friends and family, and especially when they’re having fun and playing around, sometimes self-management goes out the window and their inner child comes out.  And, my inner child can’t help but tell people what to do.

As I thought about being locked in a room and presented with a challenge that had to be completed within one hour, I started to realize that if I didn’t self-manage, my inner bossy child may come out in full force. We could all go in as friends, and come out not speaking to each other.  I decided the best thing for me to do was put everything out on the table.  “Alright,” I said, “I want this to be a fun time, so I’m going to do my very best not to be bossy when we’re in there.”  At that, they all started laughing!  They knew that would be a struggle for me in this situation and thought it was “cute” that I had to set an intention for a fun night out.  

I was able to self-manage, even though I may have still made some strong suggestions while we searched for a way out of the crazy sea captain’s lighthouse.  I don’t remember if we made it out of the room in time, but thankfully we made it out laughing and still friends. So what’s the point of telling you this story? Remember:

  1. There is a difference between being bossy and leading.
  2. We’re all human, and the people we are closest to and most comfortable with can bring out our human nature–the good and the bad.
  3. If you care about your team, maintaining those relationships should come above all else.  Unless, maybe, you really are trapped in a crazy sea captain’s lighthouse.